Port Antonio, Jamaica

Most charming of Jamaica’s north coast towns, Port Antonio once owed its fortunes to the banana trade — and nowadays is a laid-back escape from crowded all-inclusive resorts

Photo by Marcin Sylwia Ciesielski/shutterstock.comPhoto by Matthew HenryPhoto by Peeter Viisimaa/iStock.comPhoto courtesy Geejam Records

Streetscape

Perched on a promontory between two sheltered bays — West Harbour and East Harbour — Port Antonio is a compact town of about 15,000 inhabitants, and the capital of Portland Parish. Unlike other towns on Jamaica’s popular north coast, Port Antonio’s semi-isolation — thanks to its rugged, hilly surroundings — has preserved it from the worst ravages of mass tourism. Instead, it has a slightly sleepy charm, and the town centre is easily explored on foot. Chief monuments include the Georgian red brick Portland parish church, the late Victorian parish courthouse, and the remnants of eighteenth-century Fort George, later incorporated into the buildings of the historic Titchfield High School. Look out too for DeMontevin Lodge, an ornate late-Victorian residence resplendent with gingerbread detailing. Scores of celebrities stayed here over the decades, including Queen Elizabeth II, and you can too — it’s now a guesthouse.

 

Venturing out

A scenic drive west along the coast — with the glistening Caribbean Sea on one side, lush foliage and flowers on the other — brings you to the gorgeous sheltered beach at Frenchman’s Cove, a private resort, and the Blue Lagoon, one of Jamaica’s natural wonders. Local lore says this flooded limestone sinkhole is bottomless. Scientists have rather prosaically measured its depth at 170 feet. Submerged springs feed cold freshwater from below to meet warm sea tides above.

 

Trivia

Port Antonio is the original home of two celebrated Jamaican poets of different generations: Edward Baugh, a longtime and beloved professor at the University of the West Indies, and his prizewinning former student Ishion Hutchinson, now based in the US. Considering Port Antonio’s small population, having two native writers of their calibre should give the town bragging rights as a literary hotspot.

 

Appetite

Coronation Bakery on West Street is justly celebrated for its fresh-baked loaves of traditional Jamaican bread — ask for the hard dough. Some of Port Antonio’s highest-rated restaurants are in the town outskirts, or along the nearby coast. Mille Fleurs has gorgeous sea views and organic produce; Mike’s Supper Club offers nightly jazz sessions and white-glove service; the rustic Soldier Camp Bar and Grill is the place for downhome Jamaican fare. At any of Port Antonio’s restaurants, if in doubt, order the seafood, which should be no more than a few hours removed from the nearby blue waters.

 

Souvenir

Musgrave Market, along West Street in the shadow of the Port Antonio cenotaph, and busiest on Saturday mornings, is a buzzing warren of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, household items, and also local craft — look out for baskets and various decorations made from straw. You can also find almost every conceivable garment in the colours of the Jamaican flag. The upscale Gallery Carriacou, inside the boutique Hotel Mockingbird Hill, sells work by local artists and refined versions of traditional crafts.

 

Listen

The Jolly Boys, Jamaica’s most famous mento band, formed in Port Antonio back in the 1950s, and the original lineup included musicians who had previously entertained at Errol Flynn’s Hollywood parties. Their popularity rose and fell over the decades, as the band evolved through various splits, fallings-out, and reconfigurations. Their 2010 album Great Expectation, released by Port Antonio’s Geejam recording studio, became an unexpected international hit, leading to tours, music videos, and a revival of interest in mento. The Jolly Boys are now the house band at Bushbar restaurant at the Geejam Hotel — the best place to hear them live in their home town.

 

History

The town dates back to the sixteenth century, but Port Antonio’s boom years began in the 1880s, when it was the main harbour for the mass export of Jamaican bananas. To ensure the famous banana boats carried profitable cargo both coming and going, entrepreneurs promoted Port Antonio as a tourist destination. Wealthy Americans and British arrived in droves — such as the millionaire Alfred Mitchell, who came on holiday, fell in love with the tropical landscape, and built an immense sixty-room mansion, though skimping on materials. When the Mitchell house began to literally fall apart, locals dubbed it Folly Mansion, and its ruins across East Harbour are still a noteworthy landmark.

The banana trade declined in the 1940s, but a different kind of boom started with the arrival in 1946 of Hollywood star Errol Flynn. He promptly acquired Navy Island, a sixty-four-acre retreat in the mouth of the town harbour — and thus began Port Antonio’s years as a quiet retreat for film stars and occasional royalty.

 

Co-ordinates

18.17º N 76.45ºW
Sea level

 

Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston and Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay from destinations in the Caribbean and North America